The status of pet rabbit breeding and online sales in the UK: a glimpse into an otherwise elusive industry

Rabbits are one of the most popular pets in the UK and yet little is known about where these very cute and appealing animals come from. Now a new study by researchers at the Universities of Nottingham and Winchester has shed light on this elusive industry, calling for more to be done to regulate and improve the breeding of rabbits as pets.

Deliberate over-breeding of some features of rabbits, such as flat faces, can cause distressing health problems for the animal so the researchers wanted to find out what the demand is for these rabbits, what conditions they are kept in for breeding purposes and what local authorities are doing to regulate the industry in their areas.

The Rabbit Breeder Survey found that the most commonly-sold rabbits were the extreme breeds with flat faces, around half of breeders provided smaller housing than is recommended and only 1% of breeders were licensed. The survey also found that most rabbits were housed singly, against welfare guidelines, and that most local councils contacted did not use their licensing powers effectively to police commercial rabbit breeding. The full results of the study are published in the journal Animals.

Key findings:
- From 3,446 online rabbit sale adverts – 94.5% were from England and only 1% of breeders were licensed.
- From 33 breeders surveyed – 51.5% used smaller housing than recommended and housed most rabbits singly, with males most likely to be housed singly in too small conditions.
- Most breeders provided toys and a diet compliant with recommended guidelines.
- The most commonly bred/sold rabbits were breeds with flat faces (brachycephalic) which in extreme cases can be bad for their health and wellbeing.
- FOI requests sent to a randomly selected but evenly distributed 40 local councils in England, Scotland and Wales revealed inconsistencies in licensing activity and very few licences applied for or granted.

The researchers conclude that the wide variety of standards of practice by rabbit breeders in the UK may be partly due to a lack of clear and accessible guidance available on rabbit welfare and husbandry. They are calling on organisations to make use of the new study to create interventions to safeguard the welfare of rabbits used for breeding. The team is also urging local councils to review their policies regarding the licensing of pet shops and pet breeders and step up efforts to regulate the industry.

The prevalence of unlicensed rabbit breeders advertising online is considered by the Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund to be the biggest threat to rabbit welfare right now. Whilst new licensing laws came into effect for animal breeding in October, they still do not contain detailed guidance for licensing pet rabbit breeding. Based upon the results of this study, the researchers are calling for the creation of approved guidelines for managing and breeding pet rabbits, particularly in England where the majority of pet rabbits appear to originate, and which currently lacks any approved guidance on how to meet the welfare needs of pet rabbits.

Although it may be a while before the breeding of rabbits can be effectively managed by the authorities, consumers can make a difference. If you’re considering buying a pet rabbit or two, the advice from the researchers is check the Pet Advertising Advisory Group’s guide on How to Buy a Rabbit first (https://paag.org.uk/how-to-buy-a-pet/rabbits/) and consider rescuing/adopting from your local rehoming centre if you decide they are the right pet for you.

(story credit: Emma Rayner - Media Relations Manager at The University of Nottingham)

Gosling, Emma, Vázquez-Diosdado, Jorge A., Harvey, Naomi D. (2018). The status of pet rabbit breeding and online sales in the UK: a glimpse into an otherwise elusive industry. Animals 8(11):199.

Full article / DOI can be found here.